- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Islamic parties that campaigned on an anti-American platform struck a deal yesterday with a pro-democracy bloc to forge a coalition government and is likely to pick a pro-Taliban cleric as Pakistan's prime minister.

The choice of a pro-Taliban cleric as prime minister should worry Washington because Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the fight against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

But the fate of the new political alignment was uncertain because Pakistani politics can be fluid and partnerships can dissolve quickly. Another complication could be resistance from allies of President Pervez Musharraf, who said they will be the first to cobble together a ruling coalition.

Last night, the religious and pro-democracy parties said they would formally announce their choice for prime minister today, but officials in both camps have said the top spot is likely to go to Fazl-ur Rahman, the head of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, or Party of Islamic clerics.

The 15-party alliance will form a coalition with a group of religious parties, called the Muthida Majlis-e-Amal, or the United Action Forum. The group placed third in Oct. 10 elections, pledging to lead an Islamic revolution, kick out U.S. troops and rid the country of Western influence.

The pro-democracy bloc is dominated by the Pakistan People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose support for the religious bloc contradicts her public statements made in the United States and Britain. Then she had strongly opposed these parties and warned of the dangers of hard-line Islamists taking control of Pakistan.

Mrs. Bhutto lives in self-imposed exile, dividing her time between Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

A spokesman for her party, Farhatullah Babar, said the groups would control 172 of the 342 seats in parliament.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for a group loyal to the president said pro-Musharraf candidate Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a centrist, would be the next prime minister.

The spokesman, Azeem Chaudhry, said the pro-Musharraf parties have asked the president to postpone the start of the newly elected parliament, scheduled to convene Friday, for "a few days" so that parties would have more time to wrap up negotiations.

Regardless of what kind of coalition is formed, Gen. Musharraf is likely to remain the power in Pakistani politics. The president, who took over in a 1999 bloodless coup, can dissolve parliament and fire the prime minister whenever he sees fit. Gen. Musharraf won a referendum this year giving him five more years in power.

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